“INSTINCT” ELEVATED RATHBONE’S PLAY

Jack Rathbone
14 May, 24
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WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – Trades happen all the time in professional hockey. They don’t tend to happen one week into a season.

That’s what happened for Jack Rathbone, the shifty defenseman who was two years removed from being named to the AHL All-Rookie Team. Rathbone was dealt to the Penguins organization from the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 17, 2023 in exchange for Mark Friedman and Ty Glover.

The adjustment to his new club was a turbulent one at first. Rathbone racked up 64 points (18G-46A) in 86 AHL games before the trade, and he also put 28 NHL games on his résumé with Vancouver. In his first eight games in Black and Gold, he posted one point and a minus-5 rating.

The tide started to turn for Rathbone after Thanksgiving and continued flowing in his favor through December. By the end of the season, he was an invaluable piece of the Penguins’ blueline, using his combination of agility, snappy passes and cannonading shot.

His turnaround was even more noticeable to the eye than it was on the scoresheet. So what changed? According to the man himself, it was all a matter of getting more comfortable with his new surroundings.

“I think early on, you’re playing with a pretty clouded mind,” Rathbone said. “Dealing with systems that you came from and then trying to learn the new stuff, I think I was definitely starting to play a little bit more free towards the end. Not thinking as much, so playing with a little bit more instinct, I guess. That was a fun way to play.”

Rathbone’s instincts led him to produce at a point-per-game pace late in the season. Including playoffs, the 24-year-old rearguard amassed eight points (3G-5A) and a plus-11 rating in his last eight games. Coincidentally, this boost in numbers came at the same time that Ty Smith, the team’s leading scorer, went down with a season-ending injury.

“There was a little bit more opportunity there, and I just tried to take advantage of it,” Rathbone said. “I would have liked to use that confidence here down the stretch in more playoff games, but it’s tough that what happened happened. Now, going into the summer, I’m trying to have a good summer and run it back.”

Rathbone finished the regular season with nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in 69 contests. Among his season highlights were pretty goals, an OT winner and countless heavy shots, but Rathbone doesn’t have a favorite play that stands out from his first season as a Penguins. Instead, his top highlights of the year happened behind the scenes with the relationships he formed with his new teammates.

“It was a special group, an awesome group of guys that were easy to mesh with right from the jump,” he said. “It was a great year. Friends for life.”

This summer, Rathbone is an unrestricted free agent, meaning he can sign with any inquiring organization, including the Penguins. Whether his next step is another departure to new surroundings or a return to a comfortable setting, Rathbone has shown that his instinctive play produces positive results.

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